De’Ara Balenger came into the Atelier on a Wednesday afternoon and I was especially looking forward to meeting her. It’s always nice going to work and leaving with a new friend, someone you connect with, who inspires you. De’Ara exuded positivity, but beyond her personality, she has a very impressive resume. She was the director of engagement for the Hillary Clinton Campaign and then worked as the National Organizer for the Women’s March, which we were happy to be a part of too.
Activism is new to a lot of us but it isn’t new to De’Ara. She comes from a long lineage of socially and politically involved parents, grandparents (and great grandparents!). Doing good is in her DNA. In an effort to inspire and motivate us to be the change we want to see, De’Ara takes us through the things she’s learned about being an activist from her change-making family.
1. I learned that you have an obligation to love the vulnerable.
My great-grandmother was an immigrant who came to this country from Mexico in the early 1930s. She lived in West St. Paul, a predominantly Mexican community in Minnesota. Her home was a fixture in the neighborhood – a place you were welcomed if you were hungry, homeless or lost. Most of these folks were migrant workers and families looking to find community. She fed you, loved you and gave you joy; or so I’m told. I didn’t get to meet her but her legacy and teachings were passed down.
2. I learned to resist, even when the cards are stacked against you.
My grandma was a second generation Mexican American and grew up working in the fields. She was the first in her family to finish high school, and got a job at Unisys, which is now a huge global IT company. In the early 1970s, my grandmother, along with other women at Unisys, found out they were being paid significantly less than their male counterparts (sound familiar?) They sued! Unisys settled and the women were awarded not what they owed to make them whole, but it was significant. That lesson in courage is still very relevant today.
3. I learned that activism is not a choice, it’s a way of life.
Uplifting others, supporting community and being on the right side of history was just something that everyone around me did. From my great-grandparents to my youngest extended relative, we grew up loving, sharing and helping one another. My grandmother, Maria, has always been the light of my life. There’s really no other way to put it, she was a badass. In 1977, my grandmother, with my mom in tow, flew to Texas for the National Women’s Conference in Houston. It was a gathering of 20,000 women who came together to end discrimination against women and promote their equal rights. This conference was actually federally funded – can you even imagine something like this happening now?
4. I learned that when you get knocked down, you get back up.
I was heartbroken after the election but I had to get back up and contribute to the resistance. I was compelled, like my mom in the 70s, to get involved with the Women’s March on Washington and was able to contribute by being a National Organizer and strategic advisor. It was a labor of love and passion for women’s rights and representation. The sisterhood that exists among the women that organized the marches all over the world is real and profound – and an example of what happens when women lead. For me it was full circle in terms of what I learned from my great-grandma, grandma, and mother. Sisterhood is critical and so powerful in bringing about change.
5. I learned that you have to step out of your comfort zone.
After a long career in nonprofit work, my mother decided to open Wired Cycling, an indoor cycling studio in DC. It was challenging to take the plunge into becoming a small business owner, but one thing that I have learned from my mother is that you have to step out of your comfort zone – that’s where true growth lies. Once she stepped out of hers, she blossomed spiritually and professionally. Her studio is a space to gain the tools you need to be able to take care of yourself physically, mentally and spiritually. My mom’s journey gave me the courage to start a business. I could have gone back into politics after the election, but I wanted my work to be the integration of activism, community and culture and so along with my friend, thought partner and life guru, Meredith Shepherd, I co-founded a social impact group called Canopy. Our proposition is that every brand, movement and human being has the potential to impact society and the way we live.
6. I’ve learned that activism begins with the community immediately around you.
I am a believer in local, local, local. Like something as simple as having conversations with friends, family and colleagues about what’s happening in the world – and creating potential ideas around collective contributions to make your community a more inclusive, loving place. From there, learn who your local elected officials are – email, write or call them. Find out what they’re about, how to support them if you’re aligned and how to hold them accountable where it counts.
7. I learned that you must find the environment where you thrive.
I never really chose a specific path – I was always open to opportunities even if they didn’t seem like exactly the right fit. Overtime, I realized I was most productive when I worked under women’s leadership. And from that realization on, I was intentional about working for women. It wasn’t just Hillary that was an inspirational leader for me. There was also Cheryl Mills, HRC’s Chief of Staff while she was at the State Department. I also worked for other amazing women like former Ambassador Julissa Reynoso, Shawna Wilson who is a guru for development programs and Erin Barclay, currently serving as the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of International Organizations Affairs. These women and others gave me consistent encouragement and were straight up with me that as a woman, especially a woman of color, I was going to have to work harder, be over-prepared and lead with kindness, compassion and excellence.
8. Be encouraged.
I am profoundly hopeful for the future of our country. I am so rooted in my ancestors and the legacy of my family that I am not afraid; I’m ready. Everyday I’m working to make my shoulders as strong as possible so that the next generation can stand upon them – I aspire to accomplish as much as my trailblazing and inspiring ancestors.